Have you ever fancied standing in front of five well-worn, world-weary venture capitalist investors, trying to get some money out of them to help your amazing start-up take flight? Of course you have.
And for the ultimate in social suicide and ritualised humiliation, since 2005, there has been the opportunity where you get to make your pitch in front of millions on television. Meanwhile, one sniff of weakness in your pitch for their time, investment and expertise, and they will skin you alive. Reputations can be won and lost in minutes. Is it worth it?
Welcome to the Dragons’ Den.
Dragons’ Den, the reality television programme in which entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to a panel of venture capitalists in the hope of securing investment finance from them, began life in Japan.
First airing in 2001 on Nippon TV, the original programme was as The Tiger of Money. The local title, ‘mané no tora’, is a play on words on “The Tiger of Malaya” (marē no tora), which was the nickname of WWII general Tomoyuki Yamashita.
Sony Pictures Television International owns the intellectual property rights worldwide, and has sold the format to various broadcasters around the world in over 40 countries.
The BBC was the first overseas broadcaster to buy the rights for its own market, and on January 4th 2005, the first ‘Dragons’ Den’, as the corporation renamed it, was aired on BBC Two.
The 21st series of the show has been recently filmed, and is due to air in 2024. The set is a familiar one of being in an upstairs, minimalist warehouse. The first nine series were shot on location in the south of England; the first eight being shot in an actual
former furniture warehouse in Stoke Newington, London. Series nine was filmed in the world-famous Pinewood Studios, Buckinghamshire.
From series ten onwards in 2012, production moved to Manchester, where it has remained ever since. The current location is the Old Granada Studios, in the centre of the city. In this time, entrepreneur Peter Jones has been the only ‘ever-present’, with only occasional absences through mild illness.
The format is well-known, budding entrepreneurs and commercial start-up people pitch their business ideas to the Dragons. From this, they are seeking investment, usually in return for a percentage stake in the company.
Making a pitch
Given the usual lop-sided bias of the business acumen of those seated in the chairs, each resplendent with the fantasy prop of some tantalisingly out-of-reach bundles of cash placed next to them versus the often-trembling attempt of the would-be entrepreneurs to justify their enterprise, this creates some wonderfully melodramatic, adversarial voyeuristic TV.
The Dragons are held in wonder and awe, for the most part, by those voyeuristic millions who tune in on a weekly basis. However, they can also be dismissed in the harsh world of social media as pantomime villains, arrogant fools and, in certain cases, egotistical know-it-alls whose prime motivation is to belittle.
Because those on social media know best, obviously. Don’t the British just love to build up a character, purely to knock them down as soon as some invisible, self-appointed line is crossed?
For those making the pitch, the attempt at self-justification is a big motivator. Some apply to come on to the show purely to see if they are wasting their own time with a project, or conversely, to see if they have hit potential gold. The fact that they may also be wasting the Dragons’ time is neither here nor there for them.
Either way, the fortunes, dreams and ambitions of those who are looking for investment, advice and a commercial leg-up, are often won and lost by the mere phrase, “I’d like to invest…” or the dreaded, unambiguous codeword for ‘get lost’; the gut-wrenching, “I’m out.” Other investors are out there, of course, but budding entrepreneurs very quickly cottoned on to the fact that a fledgling company making a pitch on Dragons’ Den may also believe that they have nothing to lose.
It has happened more than once, that pitches rejected by Dragons became the hottest thing to have the day after transmission, purely due to that publicity of a failed pitch, sought in the heat of the Dragons’ own terrifying adversity. One suspects that the watching public is impressed by someone who, with the hide of a rhino, gets to stand up and stare humiliation – or glory – in the face, purely to achieve their business ambitions.
The edit from the BBC, condensed down into a few minutes (usually about 12 minutes for a successful pitch, and shown at the end of an episode) tells nothing like the whole story. One potential entrepreneur tells of the time that, although his pitch was only featured for seven minutes, the conversation lasted for over three hours. It wasn’t so much a Q&A which sought to uncover information, more a torturous inquisition which left him exhausted.
All he took from that experience was the producers saying, “Can we have someone next whose pitch will be shorter, as we’d all like to break for lunch soon?” Ouch.
It’s not all hubris. Not uncommonly, the Dragons may well be impressed by a pitch, but realise either that they themselves neither have the expertise nor knowledge of the marketplace to help take that budding pitcher to the next level. Advice, well-intentioned or honestly brutal, is rarely in short supply from the Dragons. But even then, they don’t always get it right.
Those who got away
Two high profile success stories which not only did the Dragons reject, but did so quite bluntly were Shaun Pulfrey’s ‘Tangle Teezer’, and James Nash’s ‘Cup-a-wine’.
Pulfrey, a hair-colourist from Grimsby, had created a hand held hairbrush which easily runs through knotted hair, and pitched his idea to the Dragons in 2009. The Dragons dismissed it as ‘hair-brained’ and likening it to more to a horse brush.
While dragons said no, the British public roared, crashing a fledgling website. He’s subsequently been described as ‘the one that got away’. Queen’s Awards for Enterprise and Innovation and then International Trade flowed, with Mr Pulfrey being presented to Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace in 2014.
The company was eventually sold to Mayfair Equity Partners in 2021 for £43.5m. Pulfrey himself is worth around £70m, ironically making him worth more than long-standing Dragon Deborah Meaden. For its part, Tangle Teezer is now described as a ‘category defining British haircare brand’.
Meanwhile, the Dragons quite dismissively put a flea in James Nash’s ear for his product – a plastic glass of wine with a seal on the top. None of the Dragons were interested in his company, Wine Innovators; one of them dismissed it as ‘tacky’. Having
left the Den empty-handed, Nash got a £100,000 investment from an angel who saw mileage in the product.
Even a year later, after M&S had put the product into 600 of its stores, Dragon Duncan Bannatyne didn’t believe Nash would ever make his product work for him. However, now beloved by commuters and service stations across the UK over the past decade, Wine Innovators Ltd is said to be worth millions.
Brewdog, Oppo, Trunki and several others are also success stories whom the Dragons allowed to slip through their hands. However, it’s not all schadenfreude…
The biggest success stories
The highest profile success story from Dragons’ Den surely must be Levi Roots; real name Keith Graham. A reggae star
in his own right, having performed with James Brown and Maxi Priest, and the recipient of a MOBO nomination, Roots entered the Den to seek funding for Reggae Reggae Sauce. He entered by ascending the stairs with guitar in hand, singing a reggae-themed song.
Dragons Richard Farleigh and Peter Jones invested the £50,000 asked for between them (house rules state that bidders can only accept the full asked-for amount; anything less means they cannot accept anything) for a 40% stake in the company. Both investors acknowledged it was a punt, but – as with many successful bids shown on the programme – the resulting publicity went a long way towards the product’s future success.
Such was Roots’ high profile self-publicity – achieved through being a highly likeable character from Jamaica – he went on to write cookbooks, open a couple of restaurants, and even appear in an episode of ‘Death In Paradise’ on BBC One. Today, Roots’ personal worth is said to be in the region of £35m.
Skinny Tan and Magic Whiteboard are two other successful investments made by the Dragons whose companies are still trading and, indeed, thriving.
As with any walks of business, there have been controversies that haven’t been satisfactorily explained. Former Dragon Simon Woodroffe left the show after the first series citing his distaste for how he felt the entrepreneurs were treated on the show, stating at the time, “The show became a battle of egos – not a forum for business innovation.”
One of the most successful, and popular, pitches came in the second episode of the seventh series where entrepreneur Sharon Wright, owner of Talpa Products Ltd, accepted a joint offer from James Caan and Duncan Bannatyne at £80,000 for 22.5% after pitching the company’s product ‘Magnamole.’
She alleged that Caan and Bannatyne misled her in the Den, and that following filming, the pledge of £80,000 was merely a loan rather than a purchase of equity. It was a sum which she would have to pay back, as opposed to the Dragons each giving £40,000 as pledged in the den.
Wright’s solicitor unilaterally terminated the contract, and she eventually secured a £100,000 investment from another investor, which led to the company’s eventual success.
Tiger Mobiles, a company which unsuccessfully applied to appear on the show in 2008, looked in depth at all 143 businesses who, up to 2011, had won cash. The company alleged just £5.8m of the £13m pledged was ever invested. Dan Forster, who compiled the research for Tiger Mobiles, claimed that the issue was less about the structure of deals and more about the kind of companies that the BBC invites to take part in the show.
“The problem lies with the BBC, who, in a bid to keep the viewer count high, have turned the show into a contrived affair that’s more about viewer entertainment than genuine business success. They tend to pick pitchers who are TV-friendly rather than those who are investible with a healthy balance sheet.”
For their part, both the BBC and the Dragons have all expressed satisfaction at the way which they have carried out their investments and business procedures, including pointing out that not every pitch contained accurate information; data they found out after carrying out due diligence.
As pointed out in Platinum Business Magazine in August, Steven Bartlett is the newest recruit to the Den and, at the age of 29 when he joined, the youngest. Series 21 will air in 2024, with two ‘Friend’ Dragons, entrepreneur and fashion designer Emma Grede, and property developer and former professional footballer, Gary Neville.
Gary says: “It’s a pleasure to join the Dragons as a guest for the new series and see some of the amazing pitches from budding entrepreneurs from different walks of life. It was a privilege to share my knowledge and guidance with the brave entrepreneurs who entered the Den, but you’ll have to wait and see whether I committed to any investments!”
Emma says: “Joining this series as a Guest Dragon has been amazing and feels very full circle to me. Being able to share my own knowledge from the business I’ve built with the entrepreneurs is so important, there’s a lot of major talent in this upcoming series, and I hope it inspires the next generation to create opportunities for themselves.”
All the while the UK continues its entrepreneurial spirit, Dragons’ Den will remain a staple television requirement for a fair while yet.